The National Rifle Association, founded in 1871, has been part of our national landscape for well over a century. Its explicit mission has been firearm use and safety, as well as providing an umbrella beneath which those who are gun collectors, hunters and enthusiasts could gather, to include those who keep guns in their homes for protection.
The NRA has, for decades, offered courses (for children and adults) in marksmanship, maintenance as well as the legalities of gun ownership. It sponsors tournaments with pistol and rifle and for years was a moderate, mainstream organization that put gun safety and responsible gun ownership first.
But that was then and this is now and the contrast between the antecedent organization and the present one is startling. This was demonstrated most graphically during the recent NRA annual meeting, held in Houston, Texas. More than 70,000 people attended (according to the organizers), listening to speakers and visiting some 550 vendors that filled 9 acres of floor space with guns and accompanying paraphernalia.
At this convention, the reconstructed NRA introduced not only its newly elected president but made clear its unforgiving posture regarding any form of gun control. It was also evident that the NRA has drifted unequivocally toward a paranoid fringe in America that perceives government through a very dark and conspiratorial prism.
Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president and chief executive officer of the NRA, set the tone for the convention when he directed his remarks to what he referred to as the political elites: "Let them be damned," he said. "We will never surrender our guns. Never. There is nothing the president will not do to get something, anything through Congress to advance his agenda to destroy the Second Amendment. Nothing."
David Keene, the outgoing NRA president, in farewell comments to a crowd of thousands, said, "Let's not fool ourselves. It doesn't mean the war is over. We must never confuse winning a battle with winning a war." The legislative battle he was referring to, which he presented as a victory for the NRA, was the fact that the organization prevailed in the U.S. Senate when the Manchin-Toomey amendment to expand background checks (with the exception of some inter-familial sales) was defeated.
The theme of the convention was "Stand and Fight," the metaphor one of war. Clearly, the NRA has become rigidly ideological, morphing into an organization that embraces, with seeming enthusiasm, a siege mentality. Based on their collective statements, they have identified the government (the Obama administration in particular) as the enemy, and constructed a rhetoric that is dark and paranoid. They promote, with the conviction of the newly ordained, that the goal of the feds is gun confiscation, and gun owners must be ready to resist and strive for parity (assault rifles and massive magazines). Parity? Seriously? Doesn't the government have tanks?
Consider the statements made by the newly installed president, James Porter. He has referred to Obama as a "fake president" and Attorney General Eric Holder as "rabidly un-American." He has called the Civil War the "war of Northern aggression," and recommended the training of every U.S. citizen in the use of standard military firearms, thereby allowing them to defend themselves against tyranny. He opined that "revenge is what is motivating this president's unrelenting attacks on gun owners," declaring that Obama's entire administration is "anti-gun, anti-freedom and anti-Second Amendment."
Clearly, the NRA, once rational and reasonable, has reframed the issue of gun safety and gun ownership as a pitched battle against a rogue government. The leadership has taken up ideological residence in a swampland peopled by conspiracists and fantasists. Regarding 9/11, there are the inside job/truthers, not to forget Birther Nation or those who view Obama as the anti-Christ; some hold the conviction that re-education camps for young people have been established across America, or Obama is Malcolm X's son; of course there's the frayed belief that Obama is a Muslim socialist; and last, and most applicable to the NRA, the feds are intent on creating a national gun registry (somehow connected to expanded background checks) thus enabling the government to confiscate all guns. That belief is the NRA's unicorn.
What is equally appalling, and a profile in cowardice, were those senators (46) who voted to defeat the Manchin-Toomey expanded background check amendment, while standing shoulder to shoulder with an extreme organization that represents a mere fraction of all Americans. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley of Oregon had the courage to support this common-sense bill.
The NRA has indeed won the battle and, despite the fact that there has been an epidemic of gun violence since 2006 (25 mass shootings, with seven in 2012 alone), despite Sandy Hook and Aurora, no matter the carnage, 46 craven senators voted no on expanded background checks, and today, once again, the NRA seems to be winning the war.
Chris Honoré lives in Ashland.